Dahiyeh’s Cafes: A World Unto Their Own
By: Ahmad Mohsen
Published Sunday, May 27, 2012
Usually suburbs host a scene less vibrant than the center of the city, but it may be that Beirut’s southern suburb, Dahiyeh [literally ‘suburb’], is a very unique exception to this rule.
The area has gone through several stages to become what it is perceived to be today, a place many people regard as a ghetto and the exclusive reserve of the Shia community. There were many key milestones in the development of Dahiyeh, one of which is the attempt to inject a hybrid modernity into the area after the July 2006 war. This brought with it a boom in cafes, each with its own secrets.
After the liberation of South Lebanon in 2000, there came the amusement park and the shisha pipes: Fantasy World. Residents recall that it was virtually the first of its kind there. This was long before Swiss Time appeared, whose owner had lived in Switzerland and returned home. And it was also before Bab al-Hara, whose owners were fans of Abu Issam and Colonel Abu Shihab [characters from a popular TV series of the same name].
An employee at Fantasy World talks about things that were almost taboo, “such as the two sexes mixing together.” Before Fantasy World, women did not smoke shisha in public. The employee laughs about that, as if he was proud of a sort of victory.
However, many remember it differently. They speak of the rise of a “Shia middle class” after the Taif Agreement. This class began to spread over wider areas of Dahiyeh, now experiencing an upward movement not only physically, with a construction boom shocking in its randomness, but also economically and socially. This encouraged investors to set up amenities to suit this new class, which grew on the margins of the changes taking place during the Hariri era.
The first two cafes were just the beginning of the mushrooming of cafes in Dahiyeh. To this day, it can be seen that the visitors to the first cafe, which is close to Bir Hassan, while the second is on the Airport Road, are very committed religiously and socially. These cafes are frequented by MPs from Hezbollah and their families. This is not a secret. It can be felt in the atmosphere of the cafe and the language used by its regulars. Patrons there are referred to as “Hajj” rather than “monsieur,” “sir” or anything else. “Hajj or Hajjah and Brother or Sister.” Even if the sister is wearing short clothes, someone will still call her “Sister,” using a religious note with populist undertones.
In general, the religiously committed middle class has changed its culture. It has become more demanding when it comes to leisure time. After the rubble of the July 2006 war was cleared away, more cafes sprung up deep in the suburb. In their decor, these cafes mimic the Western model, familiar in Beirut and its eastern suburbs. It seemed like a significant upsurge, resulting from the excessive narcissism felt by those who had “stood fast” in the suburb. They could now be accommodated in projects established with a “business” mind and a “neighborhood” spirit.
The most famous of these cafes on the motorway is El Ponte, Italian for “the bridge,” referring to the nearby Sfeir-Hazmiyeh bridge, as one of the owners tells us. Six young men move slowly outside the cafe. They stare at each other’s faces through a cloud of smoke and admire their motorbikes. We ask them which is the best cafe and they point to four at the same time. But they themselves are not cafe people. They prefer Maximum Abu Assaf (a van which sells coffee).
Upstairs, on the first floor of the cafe there are quite a few people of both sexes. At about 6 o’clock, two young men arrive. They are followed by two young girls. The first one is wearing high heels and the second wears a hijab, with only her very white face showing. With soft music playing in the background, they all ask for shisha and with despair discuss Pep Guardiola leaving Barcelona.
The same image can be seen in scores of other cafes. In another cafe, the decor is spectacular. Bold but coordinated colors and shiny walls make you forget the crowded street outside. Flat screen televisions mainly show international football games, consistent with their customers’ religious commitment [as opposed to possibly offensive music videos]. Everything is as it should be. There is music, but it will not lead to excitement or dancing. This is how the waitress describes it.
She previously worked in a cafe where the Towards Citizenship Society put on talks, with the aim of getting others to discover Dahiyeh. These cafes have made exchanges easier, there are now visitors to the suburbs. But these visitors experience more restrictions than they are used to in public places and there is less intimacy between the sexes. There is no morality police and it is not true that Hezbollah watches people. Even the simplest resident of the suburb knows what is “moral” here, particularly in places “shared” between the two sexes. This has become programmed into them, strengthened by social norms that have become widespread with time.
There are some reticent breaches, but those who commit them know their environment and these cafes are for those local people who know it well. They have not been established to attract new people who might impose their own cultures.
Despite that, it is well-known that the people of the suburbs have changed. Cafes are no longer the refuge for those addicted to playing cards or backgammon. One of the owners of a new cafe says that he likes Dahiyeh, but that its “cafe society” has failed. It requires the residents to believe in it. It has to be the mirror of an image they dream of and cannot achieve. He believes that Dahiyeh is what it is and “with this amount of violations, and the general negative relationship it has with the logic of the state, the cafes cannot play their main role, which is interaction. They may make a profit, but even this will stop.” In this context, a city councillor insists that most cafes “are not licensed under the rules of tourist enterprises. This makes them difficult to count and to deal with.”
This boom in cafes is just a glaring example of a society deeply entrenched in mobile capitalism, which has been able to absorb the cultural changes in the area by providing the right materials for stagnation.
64 percent Rise in Cafes between 2006-2008
A study carried out by Lara Deeb and Mona Harb published in volume 14 of Bahithat [female Researchers], 2009-2010, under the title “Cultural Activities of Arab Youth,” shows that 64 percent of Dahiyeh’s cafes and restaurants appeared between 2006-2008. Cafes are competing with each other, as if they conducting a silent war for potential customers.
After the war, the cafes regained some of their original purpose: a place to meet. Because there is still little employment, pavement cafes are still numerous. They blare out Hezbollah songs from ancient radios. Their owners display portraits of well-known political leaders, to guarantee immunity in advance. It is enough for their owners to put out plastic chairs on the public pavement and to sell shisha for LL3,000 (US$2) or less. In this way, a public space is declared a cafe, and a cafe like this can become more popular than the expensive ones.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.